Singularity and Diversity in Child, Early, and Forced Marriage and Unions
Globally, around 650 million girls and women married before their 18th birthday. According to recent data, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for the largest share of child, early, and forced marriage and unions (CEFMU), with 35 percent, followed by South Asia, with 30 percent. But as research expands, new geographies are coming into focus, including Latin America and the Caribbean, where one in four girls under the age of 18 are married.
Despite the evidence emerging from new settings, research still tends to focus on a limited subset of countries. Although the prevalence of CEFMU is greater in low- and middle-income countries, child marriage also occurs in high-income countries: for example, between 2000 and 2015, more than 200,000 minors, of whom 87 percent were girls and 13 percent were boys, were married in the United States.
Scholars and activists agree that the proportion of girls getting married early in many countries across the globe is very high compared to their male counterparts. However, analyses of CEFMU tend to focus solely on age to describe and explain this phenomenon. The underlying assumption is that once girls reach the age of 18, they are at reduced risk of violence and nonconsensual marriage. This ignores other important factors that place girls at risk, such as poverty, gender inequalities, including harmful gender norms, traditional understandings of femininities and girlhood, and gender-based violence.
The role child marriage plays in controlling female bodies, specifically young girls, and regulating their sexuality continues to be under-addressed in the discourse around gender equality and CEFMU. The aim of this special edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health is to present recent research on the diverse manifestations of child marriage around the world. This means going beyond geographies on which rich evidence already exists in order to amplify diverse voices and highlight the intersections between this practice and other manifestations of gender inequality and oppression.
The collection of studies in this supplement takes this wholistic approach, so well captured in the commentary by Kimball and Dwivedi: “Our intention was never simply to work toward stopping child marriage, but to approach it via its root causes and to develop more holistic, transformational processes” for responding to the practice.